The Canadian Cottagers’ Guide: For Seasoned Owners | Gilbert + Burke

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The Canadian Cottagers’
Guide: For Seasoned Owners

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You’ve finally scoped out the best route to the cottage that minimizes the amount of traffic, and you’ve equipped the summer home with all the necessities: beach towels, board games for rainy days, and the perfect marshmallow roasting sticks.

But owning a cottage has a completely different set of responsibilities than owning a home in the city or suburbs. You’ll need to be prepared for unexpected weather, unexpected guests, and unexpected costs that pop up during renovations. Take your expert Canadian Cottager’s status up a notch with the valuable information in this practical guide (we recommend printing it out for the coffee table!).

Happy cottaging!


Chapter 1: Heatwave hacks: tips to keeping the cottage cool

Warm weather is welcomed in Canada — but too much heat isn’t.

Heading up north for cottage weekends is often the highlight of our summers, but getting caught in sticky, smelly heatwaves puts a damper on getaways. While some cottagers are lucky enough to cool off with modern air conditioning systems, those in rustic or vintage cottages are stuck with sometimes unbearable heat. If your cottage falls into the latter category — or you just like spending your time outdoors — here are some easy ways to stay cool in the middle of a heatwave.

There are also ways to create your own cool.

Where does the sunlight penetrate the most in your home or cottage? Windows. If you do not live in a particularly treed neighbourhood or area, there are clever ways to create shade. For example, window awnings are both attractive and effective. They will act in the same way trees do, blocking direct sunlight that makes a huge difference in the temperature of your home. Our advice is to consider awnings that are retractable for when you want the sunlight to warm your home in later months. In most cases, a simple remodel of your home will go a long way to saving energy, and optimizing your space. The weather can be unpredictable, so in the event of less-than-ideal temperatures or rainy days, there’s no reason your family and friends can’t enjoy a weekend at the cottage. Use these tips to plan get togethers that will go down in the books.


Chapter 2: Tips to host the most memorable cottage weekend

After a work week, there’s no better feeling than heading up to the cottage to escape the city, especially when your family and friends are tagging along!

Hosting guests at your Muskoka cottage might just be the best summer weekend of the year, so it’s important to prep ahead of time to give them the ultimate experience. You want your guests to have fun but also feel completely at home. Here’s what you’ll need to be the best muskoka cottage host:

Plan Your Menu

Hot dogs many get a little bland after day two. Plan out your menu a week ahead so that you’ve got time to buy the necessary ingredients. Be sure to include meal and snack options for:

  • Kids or fussy eaters
  • Those with specific dietary needs (vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free)
  • Guests who enjoy alcoholic beverages and those who do not

Determine ahead of time whether you’ll serve meals family or buffet style to ensure you’ve got the space and dishes.

Here are some fun and different meal and drink ideas that your guests will be raving about for summers to come:

  • Mimosa bar with fresh fruit and fancy glasses
  • Pig roast
  • DIY s’mores station
  • Wine tasting — pickup a few bottles from the Muskoka Lakes Winery to give your guests the ultimate local experience

Fun in the Sun

What would a Muskoka cottage weekend be without outdoor activities and games? Allow your guests to truly soak up the skyscraper-less skies with these ideas that cater to friends of all ages:

  • Horseshoe pit
  • Badminton net
  • Motor boat, canoe, kayak, or a pedal boat
  • A fire pit
  • Hammocks
  • Water trampoline

Determine ahead of time whether you’ll serve meals family or buffet style to ensure you’ve got the space and dishes.

Have a Backup Plan

If Muskoka doesn’t pull through with the sun and heat you were hoping for, create an indoor backup plan. Equip the cottage with cards, board games, movies, extra seats, or plan a day out to visit some local attractions.

Safety First

It’s usually all fun and games at the cottage but it’s important to be prepared in the event of an emergency. Prior to your gathering, ensure you’ve got:

  • Enough life jackets for all boaters and swimmers
  • Pool noodles and water wings
  • 2 fire extinguishers; one for indoors and one near the fire pit
  • First aid kits for the cottage and the boat
  • Working smoke and CO2 detectors
  • Several flashlights

If you have an older cottage that hasn’t been maintained well, consider upgrading it to ensure it meets the appropriate building codes.

Make Them Feel Special

You’ll already wow your guests with your spectacular cottage, but to give them the ultimate Muskoka cottage guest experience, leave chocolates on their pillows, set up baskets with toiletries, or have a delicious breakfast ready for your guests when they wake up.

Time to Chill

Towards the end of the weekend, you might be feeling the draining effects of being the ultimate Muskoka cottage host so it’s important to take time to yourself to decompress. Wake up earlier than your guests one morning to enjoy coffee in your sun room or go for a solo walk.

Regardless of the weather or any hiccups along the way, your guests will leave your Muskoka cottage with memories to last a lifetime.

You want your guests to look back on their weekends at your cottage to be cherished memories. Part of the entire cottage experience is enjoying delicious food together. Create your weekend menu around these delectable crowd-pleasing recipes.


Chapter 3: Crowd-pleasing cottage recipes

It’s funny how cooking becomes almost ritualistic at the cottage.

Maybe it’s because it feels like time moves slower when you’re free of the usual work/ technology/city buzz. Maybe it’s because you’re cooking with fresh, local, incredibly flavourful produce you picked up at kitschy roadside stands on the drive up. But, all that lovely imagery aside, you might also be dealing with a less-equipped kitchen than you’re used to — or busy wrangling the aforementioned clan — so simplicity and flexibility are key in a perfect cottage recipe. Here are some cottage-friendly recipes that showcase Ontario’s amazing array of seasonal summer produce.


Fancy Pancakes!

Show off at breakfast with fancy pancakes! Even though they only require two bowls and a whisk, these Blueberry Ricotta pancakes from Jo Cooks are gourmet enough to remind everyone they’re on vacation. Rich, velvety and studded with jewel-like blueberries, the lemon adds a perfect kick of citrus and the addition of ricotta makes these pancakes show-stoppingly fluffy. Serve with local maple syrup and fresh Ontario blueberries on the side — because there’s no such thing as too many blueberries.

Get Recipe


Homemade Granola Bar

Homemade granola bars are a ridiculously simple and sustaining snack that fit perfectly in a backpack, beach bag, or on the arm of your favourite Muskoka chair. Use Everyday Eats’ recipe as a blank canvas; you can add any combination of flavours to the oat, date and honey mixture. Get decadent with dark chocolate and dried cherries, or brighten things up with toasted coconut, chia seeds and dried mango. You really can’t go wrong!

Expert tip: if you don’t have a food processor at the cottage, swap the dates for one cup of your favourite nut butter and throw these babies in the fridge for an hour before serving.

Get Recipe


Barefoot Contessa’s Peach-Raspberry Crisp

Summer is peach season. It’s also raspberry season. Get the best of both worlds with the Barefoot Contessa’s Peach-Raspberry Crisp! This one is slightly more labour intensive — although the peach peeling can easily be tasked to a helper — but worth it for the combination of perfectly ripe peaches, tangy raspberries, and the crisp crackle of caramelized brown sugar. Don’t fret if you can’t track down peaches and raspberries: this recipe from the flawless Ina Garten works just as well with apples and blackberries or strawberries and rhubarb. Serve with vanilla ice cream for a decadent dessert (or eat a scoop for breakfast because you’re on vacation.)

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Spiked Strawberry Lemonade

We can’t leave you without a perfect cottage cocktail! Whether you want a relaxing sunset sip on the porch or something to ease the stress of 12 family members staying in the bunkie (three of which are toddlers), Delish’s Spiked Strawberry Lemonade should do the trick. Serve with lemons or limes for a colourful twist! Make a kid-friendly version by swapping the sparkling rosé for sparkling elderflower or lemonade, and ditch the vodka.

Get Recipe

With recipes like these, your guests will be dropping hints for repeat invitations for years to come. In addition to hosting friends and family in the summer months, does your cottage have the potential to become your forever home as retirement edges closer? Here’s what you’ll need to plan for to prep your cottage for retirement.


Chapter 4: Prepping your cottage for retirement

Whether it’s waking up to the sound of the waves or spending afternoons relaxing in a hammock, more and more retirees are fleeing to the cottage as their year-round home.

Nothing beats the laid back cottage lifestyle! And while your cottage is the perfect summer getaway, does it have the potential to be your forever home as retirement approaches? Before you pack your bags, these are some things to consider first:


Ontario has the tendency to present us with some pretty harsh winters. Snow, sleet, and freezing rain will affect travel plans which can change things when you live in a rural area. Roads may not be plowed (if you can make it out of your driveway!), leaving you stuck at home. You may need to invest in an “Ontario winter-friendly” vehicle like a pickup truck or SUV with four wheel drive and a snow plow or snow blower. The cottage itself may not be suited for colder and more damper weather as well. Ensure the home has adequate insulation for the walls and roof and vapour barriers to combat condensation.

Space for Family to Stay

Living at the cottage year-round means you’ll hopefully have family and friends come visit. Ensure you’ve got at least two extra bedrooms for guests as well as a second washroom.

Increased Bills

If the cottage was typically only a summer getaway, you likely spent very little on utilities. But as you transition the home into a year-round living space, you may need to make some energy efficiency upgrades in order to keep the utility bill wake up call to a minimum (especially if you invest in HVAC to bear the summer heat). Here are a few ways to keep your utility bills down as you move to the cottage:

  • Add a wood stove. If the cottage relies on an expensive heat source like oil, add a wood stove to keep costs down.
  • Hang your laundry to dry instead of using the dryer.


How accessible is your home? Are there many stairs to get inside or a steep hill to climb? If everyday tasks like bringing in groceries are going to be troublesome, you may want to consider hiring a contractor to make some changes to the property and home layout. It’s also important to consider the likelihood of a family member which needs a walker or wheelchair.

Larger Septic Tank

The size of your septic tank may be based on fewer residents using the system and for only parts of the year. Moving to the cottage may mean you need to invest in a larger system.

Your Social Life

When we envision retirement, we typically see ourselves playing tennis in the mornings, golfing in the afternoons, going to dinner in the evening, and relaxing on the dock with friends at night. But realistically, the joy of retirement may wear off quickly, especially if the residents in your neighbourhood do not use their cottage as a year-round home. You may even find yourself bored! Here are a few things you can do to prep your home for retirement:

  • Keep busy. Build a room into the cottage for your hobby. Whether it’s painting, woodworking, or yoga, dedicate a space to something you enjoy.
  • Build a library. Not everyday will bring nice weather. Prep for rainy (and snowy!) days with a nook for curling up with a book.
  • Make friends with neighbours. Some cottages can be isolating. Make the effort to build relationships with neighbours by hosting a housewarming party!


Dial-up is ok for a few weekends out of the year when you’re more concerned about boating and swimming, but slow internet speeds can get frustrating on an everyday basis. If high-speed isn’t available in your area, try looking into satellite internet, cable or DSL.

You deserve to truly enjoy your golden years without sacrifices. Talk to a contractor about turning your family cottage into your dream retirement paradise!

As you’re budgeting for the renovations, there are always hidden costs that come out of left field. In our experience, we’ve encountered them all and successfully ensured the project continues on schedule. Here are some of the secret costs to be aware of.


Chapter 5: Hidden costs you left out of your home renovation budget

Seeing your ideas come to life can be exciting when you’re planning a home renovation.

And even though budgeting for the project can be overwhelming, it’s important to be aware of the common costs that can surprise you during the construction (and after). With nearly twenty years of experience, we’ve seen it all and now we’re sharing our insights with you. Here are some costs that you might not have factored in your renovation budget:

Increase in Energy Bills

Between power tools, electric heaters, and fans, you could be in for a shock when your next utility bill arrives. The increase will depend on how long the project takes and the additional tools that are used. Whether you choose to pay for the incurred expenses or pass it onto your builder, make sure it’s built into your budget.

Temporary Accommodations

If the extent of your renovation is major, you and your family may need to relocate for a period of time. Even if your project is relatively small, budget for unexpected surprises that may force you out of the house. Things like cuts to the electrical, turning the water off, or airborne dust may pop up during construction, so it’s best to set aside some of your budget in case you need to stay in a hotel.

Takeout Meals

If you’re planning a kitchen remodel, you’ve probably accounted for eating meals out of the home. But sometimes projects on other areas of the house may lead to temporary power outages or water suspensions, making it difficult to prepare meals. Budget for ordering takeout or dining at restaurants just in case.

Building Code Requirements

The dream renovation you have in mind may not be feasible and require redesigning as a potentially more expensive layout. Make sure your builder researches the appropriate building codes during the proposal process, rather than after the fact.


Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals that can have extremely serious health risks if you’re exposed to it. If it’s found during the renovation project, your builder will need to call in experts to safely remove it, which incurs more costs. Even the most unsuspecting homes can be plagued with asbestos behind the walls, ceilings, siding, roofing, and floors. If your home was built prior to 1975, chances are it has some asbestos. Talk to your builders about their protocol for addressing asbestos issues while you’re gathering quotes.

Old Wiring

Most of your wiring is concealed behind walls which makes it easy to overlook when planning a remodel. Sometimes the only way to find out is half way through the project when the wall is opened up or taken down! It can present problems with construction and also slow down the project.

Weather Delays

Your builder should give you an approximate timeline for your project, but less-than-ideal weather may cause some setbacks. Remodels that require outdoor work will be subject to weather. Rain can delay concrete projects. A snow storm can halt construction altogether. And as the saying goes “time is money.” A longer construction window can incur additional costs.

Clean Up

Renovations are notoriously messy undertakings no matter how tidy your builders try to be. For major projects, most builders will bring in a dumpster and clean up debris and build these costs into their contract. However, inexperienced builders may not include clean up. Be sure to budget for the post-clean up and determine whether your builder will take care of this or you.

Doing your research while creating your home renovation budget will help you ensure you account for these types of costs. Ultimately, the builder you choose to partner with should have experience in handling these issues and price accordingly. If they aren’t including these types of “surprise” costs, it may be time to keep searching for a partner.

Ken Jaquith Director Of Client Experience
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